How Japan's first F1 racer accelerated Tsunoda's rise

AlphaTauri Formula 1 rookie Yuki Tsunoda’s meteoric rise up the ranks is well-documented, but less well known is the contribution of Japan’s first full-time grand prix racer to that progress.

How Japan's first F1 racer accelerated Tsunoda's rise

From winning the Japanese Formula 4 title to earning a drive in F1 in the space of three years, via standout campaigns in FIA Formula 3 and Formula 2 - it’s an impressive rate of progression by anybody’s standards. But, it could have all been quite different without the intervention of a certain Satoru Nakajima, who in 1987 became the first Japanese driver to complete a full season in F1 as Ayrton Senna’s teammate at Lotus-Honda.

As well as running his own team in Super Formula and SUPER GT, Nakajima kept himself busy in the years following his F1 retirement as principal of the Suzuka Racing School (SRS), which over the years has churned out a considerable number of drivers that have gone on to represent Honda at the highest level - most notably 1997 graduate Takuma Sato.

But, Nakajima made perhaps his most important contribution to unearthing future Japanese talent in 2016, when Tsunoda graduated from the school.

Read Also:

Tsunoda was one of four finalists in 2016 that competed for two scholarships for a fully-funded season in Japanese F4 the following year and a prized place on the Honda junior scheme.

The others were Toshiki Oyu, Ukyo Sasahara and Teppei Natori, but Tsunoda missed out as the scholarships went to Oyu and Sasahara - the former having already a season in F4 under his belt and the latter having just come back to Japan after a spell racing in European junior single-seaters.

But on Nakajima’s recommendation, Tsunoda was still handed a limited amount of backing by the SRS to help him contest the full Japanese F4 season in 2017 with Kochira Racing, the same team that would run scholarship winners-turned Honda junior drivers Oyu and Sasahara.

While Oyu and Sasahara ran under the ‘Honda Formula Dream Project’ banner, with all their expenses taken care of (deducting 'crash fees'), Tsunoda and another past SRS graduate, Takuya Otaki, were entered simply as ‘SRS/Kochira Racing’, with around half their budget covered.

Without that help, Tsunoda may not have been able to gain the experience needed to mount a full title bid in Japanese F4 in 2018 - and for that, he has Nakajima to thank.

Satoru Nakajima, Nakajima Racing

Satoru Nakajima, Nakajima Racing

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Speaking to Motorsport.com, Nakajima recalled: “[Tsunoda] was so quick from the beginning and it was a bit unlucky that he didn’t earn the scholarship. I felt sorry that this kid with great speed and smooth driving missed out, and I managed to get him a [partial] scholarship.

“My choice paid off, but I was wondering whether my decision was correct or not at that time. I am quite happy to see him in F1, but honestly I didn’t expect how fast he would rise up the ladder. I was so impressed by his growth that his confidence in a F1 car shows.”

With the help of the SRS, Tsunoda placed third in Japanese F4 in 2017 behind Toyota protege Ritomo Miyata and the much more experienced Sasahara, outscoring Oyu. Off the back of that, he was made a fully-fledged Honda junior in 2018, re-entered the series under the HFDP banner and duly won the title ahead of Natori, who won the SRS scholarship in 2017.

Yuki Tsunoda(HFDP/SRS/Kochira Racing)

Yuki Tsunoda(HFDP/SRS/Kochira Racing)

Photo by: Tomohiro Yoshita

Tsunoda and Natori were then chosen to race in FIA F3 in Europe, bucking the previously established trend of Honda taking drivers from All-Japan Formula 3. Nobuharu Matsushita, Nirei Fukuzumi and Tadasuke Makino all followed this path, but with none of them producing the desired results in F2, the decision was made to start sending the most promising Honda juniors to cut their teeth on the European ladder a stage earlier with the help of the marque's new engine partner Red Bull.

As a result, that year’s Honda All-Japan F3 crop - Oyu, Sasahara and Sena Sakaguchi, the 2015 SRS scholarship winner - were all overlooked for a potential chance overseas and are now plying their trade in Japan’s domestic Super Formula and SUPER GT categories instead.

Without Nakajima's help, perhaps Tsunoda would have shared a similar fate. Maybe he would have ultimately made it to F1 in the end anyway, but it’s certainly unlikely that he would have made it to the end of 2020 able to call himself Japan’s first grand prix racer in seven years.

Yuki Tsunoda(SRS/Kochira Racing)

Yuki Tsunoda(SRS/Kochira Racing)

Photo by: Kenji Takada

shares
comments

Related video

The stark challenges Vettel’s new start now faces

Previous article

The stark challenges Vettel’s new start now faces

Next article

Alonso: ‘Good sign’ Enstone has changed a lot since last F1 stint

Alonso: ‘Good sign’ Enstone has changed a lot since last F1 stint
Load comments
Why the end is nigh for F1’s most dependable design tool Prime

Why the end is nigh for F1’s most dependable design tool

Wind tunnel work forms the bedrock of aerodynamic development in Formula 1. But as Pat Symonds explains, advances in virtual research are signalling the end of these expensive and complicated relics.

Why Mosley’s legacy amounts to far more than tabloid rumour Prime

Why Mosley’s legacy amounts to far more than tabloid rumour

The newspapers, naturally, lingered over Max Mosley’s tainted family history and niche sexual practices. But this is to trivialise the legacy of a big beast of motor racing politics. Stuart Codling weighs the life of a man whose work for safety on both road and track has saved hundreds of thousands of lives, but whose penchant for cruelty remains problematic and polarising.

Formula 1
Jun 12, 2021
Why pragmatic Perez isn't fazed by no-nonsense Red Bull F1 culture Prime

Why pragmatic Perez isn't fazed by no-nonsense Red Bull F1 culture

Sergio Perez has spent most of his career labouring in Formula 1’s midfield, wondering whether he’d ever get another shot at the big time. Red Bull has handed him that chance and, although life at the top is tough, the Baku winner is doing all the right things to get on terms with Max Verstappen, says BEN ANDERSON

Formula 1
Jun 11, 2021
What the data tells us about the F1 2021 title fight Prime

What the data tells us about the F1 2021 title fight

Formula 1 has been tracking car performance using timing loops mounted every 200m around each circuit – to the extent that it was able to anticipate Ferrari’s 'surprise’ pole in Monaco. PAT SYMONDS explains what this means for this season and beyond

Formula 1
Jun 10, 2021
The weighty issue F1 needs to find a balance with Prime

The weighty issue F1 needs to find a balance with

OPINION: After consecutive street races with contrasting highlights, one theme stood out which has become a prevalent issue with modern Formula 1 cars. But is there a way to solve it or, at least, reach a happy middle ground to help all parties?

Formula 1
Jun 10, 2021
The changes behind a 'feel-good' F1 result in Baku Prime

The changes behind a 'feel-good' F1 result in Baku

OPINION: The Azerbaijan Grand Prix had elements that make Formula 1 really exciting – unpredictability and shock results. This resulted in heartbreak for several of the championship’s regular contenders and joy for others who rarely reach the ultimate limelight. And one of those on the Baku podium is riding a wave of form he’s keen to continue

Formula 1
Jun 9, 2021
The human cost to replacing Formula 1's cancelled rounds Prime

The human cost to replacing Formula 1's cancelled rounds

OPINION: With the global pandemic still lingering, Singapore's grand prix has been cancelled for 2021, with more looking likely to follow. Although Formula 1 has TV deals and profits to chase, retaining a 23-race calendar could be most harmful to those who sacrifice the most for the championship.

Formula 1
Jun 8, 2021
Azerbaijan Grand Prix Driver Ratings Prime

Azerbaijan Grand Prix Driver Ratings

An eventful weekend in Baku full of incident and drama lent the race result an unusual feel, as three drivers scored their first podiums of the year. But it wasn't the eventual race winner who scored top marks in our driver ratings

Formula 1
Jun 7, 2021